English: An Open Source Language – A Ramble

Well, the night before I wrote this article, I happened to read some fascinating BBC articles about the inconsistencies in the English language and about how handwriting can vary from area to area. So, I thought that I’d talk about the English language today.

One of the really interesting things about the English language is the way that it evolved from several different languages (eg: Old English, Norse, German, Latin, French, Greek etc..) and how many English words are phonetic transcriptions of random words from various languages (eg: the word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic “al-kohl”, a term that originally meant “the eyeliner”).

This evolution also added depth to the language by giving English formal and informal vocabularies, based on different linguistic origins. Generally, words that are considered informal tend to come from German and Norse and more formal words tend to come from Latin and French. For example, most current English profanities are just Anglicised German/Norse words for the “polite” words a Latin speaker would use when talking about copulation, anatomical organs and bodily secretions.

This has also led to lots of other interesting phenomena, such as the fact that there are different “standard” English spellings in Britain and America – with standardised spelling itself being a relatively recent invention (before dictionaries were created, people just spelled words however they thought each word sounded).

Likewise, the evolution of the English language also means that if you’re an English speaker and you travelled back in time more than a couple of centuries, you would have a difficult time understanding the English language. I remember having to look at a medieval Middle English text when I was at university, and one of the things that surprised me was that the English in the text was barely recognisable or comprehensible by modern standards.

Unlike, say, the Académie française in France, there is no formal body that controls the English language. In addition to being a brilliant way to wind up people who are ultra-pedantic about grammar (and, yes, you can split infinitives and begin sentences with “And”), this lack of an official body also means that the language is free to evolve quickly and naturally through common usage, and to adapt the best parts of other languages.

In short, the English language has a lot in common with open-source software. In other words, it is something that people can freely adapt, alter and use in different ways. It is something that belongs to everyone who uses it rather than to any specific organisation. And this is one of the language’s greatest strengths.

Generally speaking – rules, words and spellings that actually serve a useful purpose tend to stick around (eg: the order of words in sentences) whereas those that don’t tend to fall by the wayside. For example, the term “pen” apparently used to just refer to the nib of a pen, with the whole pen being called a “pen and pen-holder” or something like that. Of course, when pens became more available and widely-used, it became easier to just use the word “pen”. So, like open-source software, the English language is optimised for efficiency.

So, why have I spent so long talking about English? Simply put, to show the utter absurdity of being too uptight about things like grammar. If you love the English language, then you should love the fact that it is something that is constantly changing, adapting, optimising, expanding and improving itself. After all, the only true authority on the English language is however the vast majority of speakers are using it at any given moment.

Not to mention that it’s even sillier when people use the English language for the purposes of nationalism. If it wasn’t for words derived from other languages, English would be a very limited language. English is such a rich language because it is an open language.

So, yes, English is an open-source language, with no owner other than the millions of people who speak it. And this is awesome 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Three Tips For Coming Up With Your Own Grammatical Rules (For Everyday Use)

Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing today. This was mostly because, after reading this old online newspaper article about how introverted people are supposedly stricter about grammar than extroverts are, I ended up thinking about my own use of grammar.

Because, despite being something of an introvert, I really don’t give a damn about “bad” grammar most of the time. As long as I can understand what someone is trying to say, the grammar doesn’t usually bother me.

Plus, even though many of the basic rules of English grammar are instinctive to me, some aspects of it just seem to linger in that nether region between boring and confusing (eg: grammatical terminology such as “participle phrases”, “subjunctives” etc..) and some aspects of it just seem slightly pointless to me.

In fact, I’ve found that I’ve actually started to come up with some of my own grammatical rules (eg: I often italicise bracketed text whilst typing, I always use “it’s” instead of “its” etc..). Whilst this would probably infuriate grammar purists, there’s certainly a case for making up your own grammatical rules. Well, within reason anyway….

So, here are a few things to think about if you want to change the rules of grammar…

1) Practicality: The first thing that I will say is that modifying the rules of grammar slightly should only be done for a good practical reason. This isn’t something that you should do just for the sake of it. But if some subtle and intuitive tweak to the “rules” makes your writing faster and, more crucially, more readable – then go for it!

For example, I tend to use brackets a lot. I love the idea of adding extra context and examples to sentences. Yet, I’m also very aware of the fact that too many brackets in a piece of text can quickly turn that text into a confusing and unreadable mess.

So, the easiest way to deal with this whilst typing is simply to differentiate these parts of the text by putting them in italics (like this) so that readers can instantly tell at a glance whether something is part of the main text or not. I also use a similar version of this rule for typed dialogue and quotes too.

Likewise, the rule about “it’s” and “its” has never really made sense to me. In fact, I didn’t even really know that such a rule existed until I was in my twenties. To me, it just seems considerably simpler and more practical to use “it’s” for all uses of the word (eg: as a contraction of “it is” or as something belonging to “it”).

Since I often write fairly quickly, it’s often easier to just use one version in all contexts rather than spending ages worrying about which one I should use. Likewise, since the meaning is fairly clear from the context, it probably isn’t too confusing to anyone reading it.

So, if you’re going to change the rules of grammar, make sure that you have a good practical reason for doing so.

2) Meaning: If you come up with a slightly different grammatical rule, then it’s meaning has to be at least slightly obvious from the context. After all, if your change requires a long explanation to be understood, then it’s probably just “bad grammar”.

After all, the whole point of grammar is to make language more readable more quickly. It exists so that we don’t have to spend too long deciphering what a piece of text means.

So, any changes you make to your grammar must be subtle enough that their meaning can easily be worked out at a glance. This is similar to how new words enter the English language. When a popular new word appears, it’s meaning is usually fairly easy to work out from the context it appears in. If the meaning is less obvious, then the chances of a new word becoming a major part of the language decrease sharply.

For example, Donald Trump accidentally coined the word “covfefe” last year. This word originally appeared as “…negative press covfefe” and it was probably just a spelling mistake since, in that context, “coverage” is the only similar word that would work in that sentence.

Yet, the new word briefly became popular as an internet joke. But, “covfefe” is unlikely to become a major part of the English language (in the way that newer words like “Brexit”, “selfie” etc.. have) for the simple reason that it doesn’t really have a clear meaning that is easy to work out from either the word itself or the way it is used. Likewise, it is also difficult to pronounce or read quickly too (at the time of writing, my current pronunciation of it is “cof-fay-fay”)

So, if you’re making a change to the rules of grammar, then make sure that your audience can easily work out what you’re trying to do (without having to waste time looking for an explanation).

3) Spontaneity: This probably sounds counter-intuitive, but don’t try to change the rules of grammar. Language evolves through practical use (typically, spoken forms of a language also take precedence over written forms). As such, good changes to language often happen fairly intuitively because they just seem easier to use.

For example, hardly anyone uses the word “cannot” in everyday speech any more, since it’s easier to just shorten it to “can’t”. This change also involves the use of a grammatical rule (eg: using an apostrophe to signify a contraction) too.

This grammatical rule came into being because it was a quick way to signal that a word had been abbreviated.

When you come up with your own grammatical rules, they shouldn’t really be too much of a conscious choice. They should just be something that seems intuitively easier or more understandable. They should be something that you don’t even notice that you’re doing at first because it just seems obvious to write in that particular way.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂